Design & display

The High Street Isn’t Dead: It’s Just Lacking Imagination

Countless headlines in recent years have proclaimed the high street as “dead”, painted as a casualty of the digital age. With the rise of online shopping, rising rents, and changing consumer behaviours, it’s true that traditional bricks and mortar retail has faced significant challenges. However, the view that the high street is simply “dead” oversimplifies the situation.

Internet sales still only account for around 25% of total UK retail sales, according to the latest ONS data. Writing off the high street therefore completely fails to recognise not only the value physical storefronts still bring to today’s consumers, but also the potential for innovation and creativity in how we use and experience public spaces. In fact, a reinvention of physical shopping experiences means the emergence of ‘the high street 2.0’ is already underway, marking an exciting new era for retail.

Analysis of Ordnance Survey data by the BBC found that British high streets are increasingly less about being somewhere to buy things, and more a place to go and experience things. The number of hair, beauty, and tattoo studios, for example, increased by 15% between March 2020 and March 2022, showing there is still demand for physical stores and experiences – just in a reimagined way. Furthermore, Twilio’s Relationship Economy Report found a preference for human interactions over digital ones in order to connect with a community (62% vs 38%), evidencing the value of physical and human-led experiences.

Consumers clearly seek community and connectivity, even if they spend more time and money online. At the end of the day, there’s a time and a place for both, and an opportunity for them to work in unison with one another in order to thrive.

high street dead

The Changing Role of a Shopfront

It is undeniable that the high street has faced its fair share of challenges in the past few years. One of the key factors is providing modern consumers with what they want from a physical retail space is not being met. Not only are we inundated with like-for-like chain stores with a lack of differentiation between them, but they often aren’t delivering more than a transactional offering. Nowadays, these spaces play a different role than they once did in the eyes of many consumers, and brands need to tap into consumers’ want for physical experiences. Otherwise, this leaves loyal customers with little reason to choose one store over the other, or even bother visiting in the first place.

Moreover, high street stores have typically fallen behind in embracing technology, while e-commerce platforms have made far more progress in integrating personalised recommendations and offering convenience. In fact, online shoppers are able to search entire online stores of their favourite brands with a simple scroll, and are able to receive tailored results, filtered searches, and targeted suggestions.

For physical stores, there are also plenty of opportunities to personalise and integrate what they might already know about customers from online interactions into the physical products and services on offer – and vice versa.

Indeed, one of the key mistakes lies in the fact that so many physical and e-commerce stores function as completely distinct and separate entities. Brands that operate both need to create a seamless hybrid experience whereby virtual and in-person experiences cross realms, and insights about a customer visiting one can feed into the other.

Integrating The Online And Physical Worlds

While the challenges are significant, there are still big opportunities for traditional high street stores to elevate their presence. Consumers shop online and on the high street in different ways and for different reasons, so any marketing strategy needs to be flexible enough to accommodate this. This presents exciting opportunities for physical stores to capitalise on this and offer something new – and you don’t have to look far to see success stories of brands who are doing just that.

However, there’s also good reason to take some of the great elements of e-commerce and embed them in physical settings, thereby connecting the two. For example, online marketing teams should be able to tap into the knowledge that a customer bought something in store, and not only send the receipt to a customer’s email, but send them a personalised follow-up from the person who helped them in store, building loyalty. This again taps into the finding from Twilio’s Relationship Economy Report that consumers prefer ‘more human’ retail interactions. Going one step further, the insights gleaned from the customer’s in-store preferences and past purchases could also be transformed into recommendations during their shopping online experience, too.

Furthermore, shopfronts can serve a reinvented and enhanced personal experience by reimagining how they make use of their changing rooms. Embedded technologies, for instance, can be used to instantly recognise what clothing items customers have taken in with them. These can then be brought up on a touchscreen tablet on the changing room’s wall, displaying product descriptions, similar product recommendations, and letting you select an alternative size to be brought directly to you. Integrating this convenience and information available online, with the immediacy of a physical in-store experience, is a great example of creating a hybrid shopping experience and connecting virtual and physical spaces. And this concept isn’t merely a future-looking possibility, it’s a reality, with many brands already tapping into these technologies and rethinking their offering.

Such data insights can therefore be the building block of successful retail spaces, communicating that you truly know your customers, and can add value to their shopping experience. As customer experience encompasses every touchpoint and channel – both online and in-store –  it’s vital to create ways for these data and insights to flow between all platforms. This gives customer-facing employees access to the necessary customer data and context to create a consistent, valuable, and meaningful experience, whether it’s a digital customer service interaction, or in-person shopping.

While not every retailer might have the scale and resources of global brands, there are elements and principles a brand can leverage to not only convey an opinion, but show people something new.

An Opportunity to Differentiate

To revitalise the high street, brands need to rethink their technology strategies for their in-store retail offering, and consider how they can better connect this with their online presence. Gone are the days when the traditional transaction of ‘buy and sell’ would suffice, and many brands have caught onto this fact. Businesses must now recognise the changing landscape and adapt to the evolving needs and preferences of consumers, seeking wherever possible to unify the data provided directly from customers’ interactions across both online and in-store, and use them for their next engagement.

Organisations can successfully bridge the online/offline gap by offering recommendations or special offers and deals based on in-store interactions. And there’s a good rationale to do so, with 86% of consumers saying personalised experiences increase their loyalty to specific brands, according to Twilio’s State of Customer Engagement report – but only if it’s more than saving their name and contact details for next time.

The physical retail store must accommodate the changing ways we use our high streets. They’re becoming events spaces and locations to access additional services from brands, but most importantly, they’re a venue to offer great customer experiences – the kind that determines whether customers remain loyal to a brand, or turn to a competitor. With many brands already setting a great example, others need to jump on the bandwagon to avoid being left behind. With a little imagination, other brands can bring back excitement to the high street, too.

Attributed to Sam Richardson, Customer Engagement Consultant at Twilio